No Friend But the Mountains, by Behrouz Boochani

I recently finished reading No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani. I previously mentioned Behrouz last year in the nothing here newsletter when he won one of the most prestigious literary awards in Australia. He’s a refugee who was trapped in Australia’s offshore refugee prison for years, and is still stranded on Manus Island even now. He wrote reportage about Manus and this entire novel via text message on a phone he wasn’t even supposed to have in the prison. The logistics behind the writing, translating, and editing of this book alone demonstrate Boochani’s drive to get this story out into the world, and we should be thankful for that, because it’s a story that needs to be told.

The story starts with his first attempt at crossing the ocean and continues on from there (ironically/sadly if this first boat hadn’t sunk he might have been able to settle in Australia because with his second attempt he arrived just a few days after the fucked up “no one coming by boat will ever be allowed to set foot on Australian soil, regardless of the validity of their status as refugees” law was passed). It’s poetic while remaining grounded in the systematic horrors of the prison and the situation all the refugees find themselves in. It’s an important read for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that governments all over the world are taking inspiration from Australia’s offshore detention regime, and as time goes on, and climate and ecological pressures cause more people to need to flee their homes and homelands, we will see more countries establishing similarly barbaric prisons – sorry, “processing centres” – cropping up all over the world. These refugees will find themselves locked up in prisons like the one at Manus Island for the simple “crime” of seeking asylum.

I want to see every politician who has served since the (fabricated) child overboard “scandal”, and hasn’t publicly condemned Australia’s refugee policies, be locked up in Manus Prison, indefinitely. I want their wealth taken from them, I want their exorbitant fucking pensions stripped from them and used to provide all our tortured refugees the kinds of lives they deserve here (and the therapy they will no doubt need after all that we have inflicted on them).

The book opens with a long introduction from the translator, and one of the (unrelated) things from it that really caught my eye was this:

His use of metaphors related to wolves is exceptional and haunting … I once heard that in Iran when a sheepdog fights off a wolf to defend its flock it aims for the jugular. In most cases the wolves are too strong and ferocious for the dogs. But there are times when the sheepdog manages to lock its jaws around the wolf’s throat and remains clamped onto it until the wolf can’t withstand the pressure anymore; the dog persists until the wolf submits. The sheepdog emerges from the victory with an extraordinary self-realisation – the experience transforms the dog, the encounter empowers it. The sheepdog develops a new sense of self beyond self-confidence – it re-identifies as a wolf. The shepherds know the dangers of this phenomenon; they know that when a dog’s identity morphs in this way it is no longer controllable. They put it down.

The Ascent to Godhood, by JY Yang

(I had to trim some reviews out of the nothing here newsletter to get it to send, so here’s this.)

The Ascent to Godhood

With The Ascent to Godhood, JY Yang continues weaving together the disparate threads of the Tensorate world. Instead of a simple, linear series, these books slots together like a jigsaw puzzle, with each piece illuminating more of the whole.

Not only is each beautifully written, filled with unique worldbuilding, and populated with fully fleshed-out characters, but with each Yang has pushed themselves to explore different narrative styles to great effect.

I hardly read fantasy, but I love these books.

Square Eyes, by Anna Mill and Luke Jones

(I had to trim some reviews out of the nothing here newsletter to get it to send, so here’s this.)

Square EyesI was put onto this comic thanks to the About Buildings + Cities podcast, and the series they did on Katushiro Otomo’s Akira. For the final episode of that series, Luke and his co-host, George Gingell, also had Anna Mill on, and they talked a bit about Square Eyes, and the influence of Otomo on Mill’s art. (You may have also seen it mentioned in Orbital Operations, because we can’t go one issue without referring back to the President of the Republic of Newsletters.)

The Akira comparisons aren’t obvious or immediate, but that hardly matters because Mill’s art is phenomenal. The characters, clothing, buildings, and assorted ephemera of city life are exquisitely rendered, and the colours almost glow on the page, soft but vivid at the same time.

The story concerns a software designer/engineer/superstar who has dropped off the grid for a few months, forcibly interred at a sort of digital detox facility. The book starts with her return to the city, desperate to be reconnected to the digital realm. The digital and physical facades of the city are shown subtly, the ways the digital has come to usurp the real (similar to my upcoming Repo Virtual). As Fin tries to regain her memories and her old life, we see images of overlaid memory and reality, blurring together in hallucinatory moments, multiple layers of art pressed down on one another as the disparate bleeds together. And in one section we see Fin and her friend George navigate parts of the city hidden from the digital realm in a way that could only be done in comics.

I’m not entirely sure what I think of the story, but artistically and aesthetically, Square Eyes is unparalleled. Just the lettering alone is fantastic, and I hope other letterers take notice of what they’ve done here. This style won’t suit every project, but with a setting like this, where layers of reality are laid one atop the other, the see-through word balloons add another subtle layer to the whole project.

American War, by Omar El Akkad

American War Cover ArtAmerican War by Omar El Akkad was the Restricted.Academy Book Club pick for January, and I didn’t give my thoughts on the book in the newsletter at the time, but it has been on my mind often in the time since. Sometimes you put a book down and instantly forget that you’d ever read it, other times they linger for months or years.

American War tells the story of a Second Civil War taking place approximately 50 years in the future, across an America altered by rising sea levels, climate change, and related political upheaval. The war is being fought over fossil fuels – the people of the Free Southern State are determined to continue burning them in a stubborn and suicidal show of defiance against the north and the march of progress/ecological catastrophe. But American War doesn’t take a big, broad view of the conflict, rather it follows Sarat Chestnut from her childhood until her death, and in doing so shows us refugee camps, resistance groups, radicalisation, torture, murder, and the many ways that war can crush people until all that remains is hate. Despite that scope, in a lot of ways it’s a small and slow story – made up of detailed glimpses of events both mundane and life-altering.

El Akkad is doing a lot of interesting things with this book. I want to say that he’s both retelling the Civil War and combining it with the War on Terror, but I’m not sure the first part of that is entirely true. One of the things a few of us in the Book Club were iffy on was the complete lack of discussion about race in a book about southerners fighting a Second Civil War. American War was first published in early 2017, which means it was likely written in 2015 (or earlier), so perhaps it’s just an unfortunate side effect of when it was written, but reading it today, post-Charlottesville (and post- so much else), the lack of racial context seems like a glaring oversight. As a writer, I understand that sometimes you might leave something out of a story because you want people to be able to read it without being reminded of their own past trauma. For instance, most of Void Black Shadow is set in a prison, but I knew from the start I wasn’t going to explicitly detail sexual assault (which, come to think of it, El Akkad also avoided in the refugee camp section of the book when real life tells us that it would have been rife with it). Avoiding sexual assault is one thing, but leaving racism out of a second civil war is almost like taking the white supremacist viewpoint on the first civil war at face value – that it was “about state’s rights” not slavery. (If you haven’t listened to the Uncivil podcast, I highly recommend it. They do a fantastic job of deconstructing the Southern mythology surrounding the Civil War.) So I get it, but it was an odd choice. Even so, El Akkad is doing so much with this book, and almost all of it is great, so that omission isn’t a dealbreaker.

Transporting a war that looks an awful lot like the War on Terror into the American context is a huge task, and El Akkad does it so well that I didn’t even realise that’s what he was doing until I read some of the review blurbs. It should have been obvious, but I was so caught up in the texture of the world he was creating that I got lost inside it.

One of the most interesting things about the book is the way it instills empathy in you for people even as they’re preparing to do horrifying things. There was one point in the book (fairly late in the piece, to be fair) where I began to wonder if the suffering being inflicted on Sarat was beginning to get gratuitous, but it’s not at all. It’s El Akkad taking us by the hand and guiding us through her life of constant hurt so that we can truly understand her.

I can’t help but draw parallels to my own work (because I’m a writer and/so I’m self-involved), but at the end of Void Black Shadow Mars does something huge and heinous, but the only way I could make it work was to give the situation a sense of immediacy and desperation. She did it because she was certain it was the only way to save her friend. But I think that’s part of why the ending to American War works so well – there’s no immediacy, there’s just the pit inside Sarat that can only be filled with other people’s pain.

So it’s a book not without its issues, but it is also so big (yet intimate) and compelling, multi-layered, beautifully written, and expertly constructed. I highly recommend it.